Amid all the criticism, we must not forget the vital role our universities play

It has been a tough year for higher education, but we must not forget how universities transform their students’ life chances, says Maddalaine Ansell

December 6, 2017
Sweeping the streets
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Universities have received some bad press this year. We have been likened to a cartel or a Ponzi scheme. We are said to have lowered standards to fill places and have been ridiculed for giving students soft toys to relieve stress.

Modern universities have come under particular attack, with some calling for the reinstatement of the binary divide. 

Meanwhile, Alison Wolf, the Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King’s College London and a cross-bench member of the House of Lords, has argued that increased participation in higher education has not resulted in increased productivity. She thinks that this may be as a result of a mismatch between skills and qualifications, with graduates doing “non-graduate” jobs. The forthcoming National Audit Office Review of the higher education market is likely to explore similar themes.

Wolf is a distinguished academic and should be taken seriously. At the University Alliance, we are putting across our side of the argument through select committee inquiries in the Lords and the Commons and will do so again through the forthcoming review of tertiary education.

It is very unlikely, however, that even killer arguments will win over some of our critics. Their convictions come not from careful consideration of the evidence, but from something more instinctual – whether discomfort that the certainties of their youth no longer hold true or a romantic preference that the purpose of universities is still to create a golden cohort who will fill top establishment jobs.

As long ago as the 4th century BC, Aristotle argued that no orator could rely on reasoned argument alone. We also need to appeal to values and emotion if we want to persuade. 

And so we base our arguments on social justice as well as economic benefit. I am most familiar with our modern civic universities and am endlessly impressed by their efforts to extend opportunity to all parts of society and to make sure that all their students can succeed. I am often moved when I meet these students and hear how university has transformed their lives and opened up the possibility of a different future.

But an argument based on values and emotion still relies on an audience that is actively engaging. Outside the sector and the commentariat, people don’t have the luxury of time to reflect on the issues in such great detail. Instead, they fit new pieces of information into an existing worldview – which may have more in common with “mythical” than with “logical” thinking.

This made me think about my own motivation for going to university and the stories that powerfully influenced my own decision-making. I identified with a particular fictional staple – the bright girls who enjoy learning. There was Anne of Green Gables, the adopted farm girl who worked so hard to go to Queen’s Academy to become a teacher. Or Ann Robinson, in Noel Streatfeild’s Gemma books, who had to steel herself to tell her musical father that she would rather go to university than pursue a singing career.

More recently we have had the appealing Lyra Belacqua in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series who, at the end of the trilogy, learns that she can no longer instinctively understand her alethiometer, a compass-like instrument that gives cryptic answers to questions about the future. If she wants to read it again, she will have to embark on years of study. This is a recognition that the work of a scholar is hard, but the rewards are more than worth it.

There are, of course, other fictional archetypes that shape views of university. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis reads today as a slightly snobbish account of life in a provincial red-brick. In Brideshead Revisited, Oxford is an Arcadia for aristocratic young men – the preserve of the establishment.

Research by Garth Stahl, senior lecturer in education at the University of South Australia, looks at why working-class boys don’t apply to university. He believes that it is important for them to fit into a group. Being too bright can mark them as different from their peers.  When told that they are capable of getting the grades for university, they don’t want to go because they think that they will be outsiders.

Stahl argues that this is just one manifestation of a wider set of values rooted in emotional commitment, social ties and collective responsibility for the vulnerable – and which find the current rhetoric of universities as a route to higher earnings off-putting. 

One boy says, “I don’t want people to think that I love money. I want them to think I give something back, that it works both ways, that I’m not greedy.” So how should we appeal to our potential students – and to wider society?

We need our own stories with modern mythical appeal. At a recent meeting, colleagues brainstormed some archetypes of typical University Alliance students. They were all based on real individuals, but represent a type that might be found in any of our universities.

There was the single mother who goes to university so that she can give her children a better life; the graduate who goes into pharmaceuticals and deems his career a success because patients write to him to say that his products have changed their lives. There are the elite athletes who return to coach others because they want to give back; and the Muslim women who win prestigious scholarships and prove to others that it can be done.

In our efforts to justify our current funding structure, we are perhaps underplaying what really motivates students – and the real value that they bring to society. Of course people want to know that they will be able to house and feed themselves and their families and have some money left over for holidays and fun. But our students are people who want to make a difference.

We often talk about how our education transforms the life chances of our students. Even more importantly, it gives them the opportunity to transform the lives of others. 

Maddalaine Ansell is chief executive of University Alliance.

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